When rumours swirled early Tuesday morning that the Toronto Maple Leafs were working to trade captain Dion Phaneuf, executives from other NHL teams were skeptical.
Phaneuf had been offered around the league going back nearly a year. Working against the Maple Leafs were his age (31 in April), his level of play and his contract, which has more than five years remaining at $7-million a season (all figures U.S.).
He also has a no-trade clause, which stipulated only 12 teams to which he could be traded.
One of those was the Ottawa Senators.
Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello pulled off what many in hockey believed impossible later Tuesday morning. He traded Phaneuf to Ottawa without having to retain any of his salary, meaning Toronto will be free and clear of the burden of his deal in the near future.
Lamoriello also received something of value for Phaneuf: 20-year-old Swedish prospect Tobias Lindberg, along with a second-round draft pick in 2017.
It was, like all things with the rebuilding Maple Leafs, a deal made with an eye on success two or three years down the line.
"This was a transaction we had no choice with," Lamoriello said, alluding to Phaneuf's albatross-like contract, the sixth-highest for a defenceman in the NHL this season. "This was in the best interest of what we're trying to do here."
"The problem for us with Dion is Dion is ready now to win, and we're not ready to win," Leafs coach Mike Babcock added. "It's a good decision for our club, following the plan that we've had in place since [the season] started."
The Leafs' plan is substantially different from the Senators' plan, which was what facilitated the deal. Ottawa was only four points out of a playoff spot when the trade was made, and had a glaring need for an experienced defenceman.
Toronto, meanwhile, is in the NHL's basement and has been working the past 12 months to clear out the many terrible contracts signed by the former management regime.
To date, the Leafs have shuffled out three key veterans – David Clarkson, Phil Kessel and Phaneuf – to create eventual salary-cap savings of more than $19-million a season.
The savings are "eventual" because of what Toronto took back from the Senators on Tuesday. In addition to Lindberg and the draft pick, the Leafs received Milan Michalek, Jared Cowen and Colin Greening, three struggling players who collectively earn $8.8-million a season.
Their deals, however, all expire after next season – four years before Phaneuf's.
What that means is that for 2017-18, when the Maple Leafs ought to be a young team on the upswing, they have only $23-million in salaries committed, giving them significant freedom to add talent via free agency or trades.
Perhaps even enough to sign a player such as Steven Stamkos, the Tampa Bay captain who is headed for free agency in the summer if he's unable to sign a new deal with the Lightning.
The Leafs, fittingly, have vacancy both at the No. 1 centre spot and, after Tuesday, the captain's role.
"This gives us the opportunity to do things," Lamoriello said, cryptic as ever. "But it also gives us an opportunity when some of our younger players [such as Morgan Rielly and William Nylander] are coming [up for their next contracts] to be able to sign them."
The trade is a good example of the complex economic and strategic concerns that now go into every transaction in the NHL these days. Teams have realized that salary-cap flexibility is as big a weapon as any when in a negotiation, and with Clarkson, Kessel and Phaneuf on the books, the Leafs would have had almost none for the foreseeable future.
While the league was getting younger and faster, the Leafs were anchored to aging, declining players, which was the biggest challenge facing president Brendan Shanahan when he was hired nearly two years ago to clean up the Leafs' mess.
Getting out of onerous commitments and focusing on the franchise's pool of draft picks and prospects were the organization's top priorities this season, and this deal managed to accomplish both. (Ottawa also acquired depth players Matt Frattin, Cody Donaghey, Casey Bailey and Ryan Rupert in the trade, but none are expected to contribute at the NHL level.)
In the near term, moving Phaneuf leaves a hole in the Leafs lineup and in the leadership department, and Lamoriello said the team will not name a new captain in the final two months of the season. Phaneuf was popular with teammates, coaches and managers in Toronto – several of them lamented his abrupt exit on Tuesday as he headed for the airport – but his mobility was diminishing and his contract didn't fit with what is coming next.
The Leafs' attention will now turn to the trade deadline on Feb. 29, and exchanging more veterans for picks and prospects is part of the rebuild. They still have several bad contracts (such as Joffrey Lupul's $5.25-million a year through 2017-18) to unload; it will take considerable magic to convince another team to absorb that money.
But this trade was the big one, given the term and the role Phaneuf had. It's not only turning the page – it's giving Lamoriello and company a blank one to work with.
"Dion is our leader and a real, real good man," Babcock said. "Someone has to step up now. Someone has to step up in the room and provide the leadership he provided."
"It certainly wasn't easy," Lamoriello said. "Unfortunately, this is part of business."